Today on The Kona Edge we catch up Wes Thompson who shares with us why he gave up a lifetime of surfing to pursue the Ironman lifestyle.
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BRAD BROWN: We head to New South Wales now in Australia to catch up with Wes Thompson. Wes, welcome onto The Kona Edge. Thanks for joining us.
WES THOMPSON: I’m excited you asked me on Brad. Thank you very much.
BRAD BROWN: Wes, you’re an avid listener of the podcast. I love reaching out to athletes who have raced on the big island and get emails back saying we love the podcast. So, thanks for listening.
I don’t get an opportunity often to thank people for listening but thank you. I know you do listen to it often.
WES THOMPSON: Every week. Wouldn’t miss an episode Brad.
BRAD BROWN: Wes, let’s talk about your background. You’re a very decent triathlete. Where did your love for triathlon come from?
Curiosity can lead to unexpected challenges
WES THOMPSON: Curiosity, more than anything. The sport I was involved with at the time just wasn’t doing it for me and I wanted to try something different. I had friends in the local triathlon club who gave it a crack and I went along to a sprint or club distance race, and the curiosity got the better of me and I really enjoyed it so it’s just flowed from there.
BRAD BROWN: Tell me a bit about your sporting background. Australia, like South Africa, is a very sporty nation. Everyone seems to be pretty athletic and at some stage in their lives took part in some sort of sport. What was your sport of choice growing up and what were you into?
WES THOMPSON: Surfing Brad. So as long as I can remember we’ve been at the beach and we’d spend all day at the beach and all weekend at the beach. I grew up surfing with my brothers. I’ve got 3 older brothers and we’d just be at the beach all day surfing. Whilst the other kids were at the ocean pool in the corner of the beach learning to swim, I was out surfing with my brothers.
A competitive nature for survival
BRAD BROWN: Is that where your competitive nature came from as well being the youngest of 4 brothers? If you weren’t competitive you probably wouldn’t have eaten.
WES THOMPSON: Yes, you’re right. I was a bit of a punching bag for my brothers and yes, you grew up fast, that’s for sure. Defending for yourself was good.
BRAD BROWN: And from a competitive level perspective, surfing, were you any good? Are you any good?
WES THOMPSON: I did surf competitively but just bits and pieces. Just some local club contests, that sort of stuff. I still surf but not as much as I used to because this whole triathlon thing gets in the way. But I’ve always surfed, and I always will surf. But sometimes, I’ve said it before and I say it to people when they ask me, sometimes surfing can be a little bit ground hog day.
Experience the rush with your Ironman training
I was always the first guy in the water, I’d always be up early, pre-dawn, checking the surf. Quite often there isn’t surf or the surf is no good, or there’s no swell or it’s cold or it’s windy or it’s crowded, blah, blah, blah. And sometimes you head home after going down to the beach without that stoke. You don’t get home satisfied.
That’s where triathlon has taken over. Not so much triathlon racing but with the training. After every session there’s that endorphin that’s kind of hard to beat. Surfing is good, there’s not always a rush and that’s kind of where the triathlon training has sort of elbowed its way in, so to speak.
BRAD BROWN: People look at surfing and think it’s not really that physically demanding. But I’ve got a 43 year old brother who literally has in the last 2 months taken up surfing and he said to me I cannot believe how hard it is. Physically it’s pretty challenging.
Building your core strength through surfing
WES THOMPSON: Yes absolutely. I agree 100%. When I first started training and racing, probably 7-and-a-half to 8 years ago, my wife would comment how could I just go out the door and train and not get injured? No niggles, nothing like that. And I put it all down to surfing because that core strength that surfers have that probably very few other athletes would have day-to-day. But me, I’m not surfing quite as much. I’ve got to keep that core strong in other ways. So yes, surfing is very physical. Surfers are very fit people without really knowing it.
BRAD BROWN: And that core strength in triathlon is often neglected and it is so vital. Because you’re training for 3 separate disciplines people think that’s where you need to focus your time. But you do need to find some time for that strength and conditioning don’t you find?
The 5 disciplines of Ironman training
WES THOMPSON: Yes, absolutely. There’s a saying going around that you get away with it until you don’t. And I’ve found that out. People realising that strength training is probably just as important as the other 3 disciplines. There are probably 5 disciplines in the sport with nutrition and core strength.
BRAD BROWN: And sadly the older you get the more important it becomes.
WES THOMPSON: 100% Brad.
BRAD BROWN: I’m finding that out first hand. Wes, as far as team sports go, Australia is very much, you look at some of the big sporting codes. Before we started recording we were speaking about rugby union and you said you watch some rugby league. Cricket is big there. Have you always been individual sport focused, like surfing? Or did you play some team sports growing up as well?
WES THOMPSON: I would probably say no to that. Going through high school and junior school there was the odd game of soccer, football and the odd cricket game but I’ve always been an individual. I’ve always surfed and all through high school I was big on skateboarding.
Adrenalin junkie for individual sports
I used to like to skate as well and growing up on an acreage, my parents farm, or the family farm, we had motorbikes, so we did quite a few serious motor crossing and enduro racing. So I haven’t followed the traditional mould of team sports and that sort of thing. Running that sort of thing, not at all. Was more of an action sportsman I suppose. I’ve since given away the dirt bikes and I haven’t broken any bones yet so triathlon has been good. You never know.
BRAD BROWN: Sounds like you’re a bit of an adrenalin junkie. Was that one of the things that attracted you to triathlon? That it was an individual sport even though you can train in squads and that sort of thing. At the end of the day in race day it’s up to you and what you do.
WES THOMPSON: Yes, I think so. I’m not a big group trainer. I love cycling, I love my bike and getting out and going wherever I want to go. I don’t ride in groups, I don’t train in groups, and I don’t run in groups. We do the odd spool session. But I like just getting on the bike, not waiting for anyone and not having to be waited for. I just go when I want to go and that’s the way I like it, so I wouldn’t change that.
Get up and get training
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about work, life balance and triathlon. You’re married, you’ve got a family. You have 2 girls as well. How do you get that balance right? What do you do for a living and how do you keep that juggling act in place? Because training for an Ironman is not easy.
WES THOMPSON: Just lots of 4:30 alarms probably 6 days a week. Get up, get it done early and be back in time to head to work. I run a small family business with my brother and that’s very hands on. I don’t let my training or racing affect the running of the business in any way. We have the odd week off here and there to head away for a race week. But I’m at work every day on time and we’re out the door no earlier than 5 and then it’s off to the next session. So yes, the training doesn’t interfere with the work at all, I make sure of that.
BRAD BROWN: Do you find that having that structure in your life, up at 4:30 and doing the sessions you need to do before work, helps you in your work life as well?
Get organised and get it done
WES THOMPSON: I’m not sure. They’re two separate identities I think. Running a small business is very hands on. I pride myself on being on time. I’m never late. If I’ve got an appointment or whatever, I’m always so hard on myself if I’m running late or I’m letting someone down. So I always like to be very prompt and on time and structure is not a problem, and motivation is not a problem. You just get it done.
BRAD BROWN: I’m glad I was on time for this interview.
WES THOMPSON: That’s one thing for sure I wasn’t going to be late for it.
BRAD BROWN: Wes, let’s talk about the sport itself. Starting out doing sprints and Olympic distance and then making the step up to the longer ones. What was your progression? Your first introduction, tell me about that first race and then the thinking of going longer.
Do you know what to expect?
WES THOMPSON: The local triathlon club here in North Casey South Wales I did my first, I’m pretty sure it was a sprint or a club distance race. And it was pretty humbling. I went in with no idea of what to expect. I knew it was going to be difficult but I was just getting smoked. I bought myself a cheap road bike.
I kind of can swim because I’ve always surfed and I’ve never really run. I could never really run because I broke an ankle years ago playing touch football, there you go a team sport, and always used it as an excuse why I couldn’t run. But after getting smoked on that first race is like, hell this isn’t good. I need to address this and come back and do the next race and do better. It stemmed from that.
Obviously the progression is, there are some Olympic distance races that are 45-minutes away and you enter them at a crack and see what you’re capable of and it just stems from there. Just trying to see what you can actually do. It’s very enjoyable and fun to see how far you can actually push yourself.
Going back to get better
Then you start thinking of travelling farther afield to get used to triathlon and you learn all about triathlon there. They’re 3 and 4 hours away by car and you’ve got friends going up to race and it’s like right-o, let’s be part of that and have some fun. It wasn’t long before you were mixing in triathlon circles and people were talking about 70.3 and Ironman and you just want to know more. Your curiosity gets the better of you and before long you know what Kona is. You know all about it and the curiosity really gets the better of you. And it did.
BRAD BROWN: Before you know it you’re sucked in good and proper. That’s just the way it works.
WES THOMPSON: Yes, pretty much. I’m a bit of a tinkerer. I love my bikes and when I had the dirt bikes I’d always be tinkering with dirt bikes. Being mechanically minded and love getting in the garage and working on bikes and trying to optimize them. There’s an advantage with the machine to the bike and what you can get yourself into with your machinery. That’s not a fact. I enjoy that in triathlon. Just going out and having a run.
BRAD BROWN: Funny you say that because I was going to ask you. Did you approach your training in that sort of way? Were you very deliberate about it? Were you tinkering, and that was funnily enough the word I was going to use. How did you, after that first one where you said you got smoked and you went back and you thought “you know what I’ve got to get better at this”.
How did you approach that from a training perspective? Did you go and get help; did you read up, did you go online? How did you approach it?
Curiosity and good genetics when you don’t have a coach
WES THOMPSON: No I didn’t go an actively look for help. I absorbed a lot of information. You’re on the websites, you’re taking it in. If curiosity gets the better of you, you’ll surf the web and be a bit of a sponge to take in bits and pieces from here and there and you quickly get an idea of what’s involved with going a bit quicker. In those early days I clearly wasn’t coached. I didn’t use training programs and you’re just new as a novice. To get quicker you just had to get more practise and train the disciplines a little bit more. And if you’ve got some good genetics and an attitude that has a bit of a crack, you’re going to improve pretty quickly.
BRAD BROWN: Going back now, knowing what you know now, if you had to go back would you change the way you did things? Would you have got help sooner, or would you have done things exactly the same?
Would you change the way you do things?
WES THOMPSON: I wouldn’t change anything. I hear you ask that question quite a lot and I ask myself that and it’s no not really, I wouldn’t change anything. If I got into the sport sooner who knows, I might have ended up a little bit worn out and fatigued. But right now, the age group I am, I’m 45-49 now, and had I started any sooner I might be a little more busted up but now I’m really still enjoying it and still seeking to improve.
BRAD BROWN: I find that interesting that you say no because I also have that same sort of feeling, that you almost need to pay school fees, and school especially, is finding out good base training. You might not be doing everything right but you need to get those miles. There’s no shortcut around that. A coach can’t tell you how to train. You need to go out and train. And sometimes people try and get too analytical when they start out and really dial in too soon. That’s just my opinion.
WES THOMPSON: Yes, I think you’re right there. I think you need to sort of find your own way a little bit. I think to dive in first, if you’re a complete novice and you’ve got no idea whatsoever, that’s where a coach would be a great idea. Or a club or some sort of athlete that could mentor you.
Can a coach spoil your triathlon training?
But I would take information, bits and pieces from here and there, and I’d start mixing in triathlon circles and you quickly get an idea of what needs to be done. I think on the other hand if you get a coach too soon that could really suck the fun out of it quickly. If suddenly there’s a coach on your back to get you to the pool early, which could really take the fun out of it. So no, I wouldn’t change it, change the way I’ve progressed.
BRAD BROWN: I think fun is probably the operative word and it’s important. It’s probably the same with surfing that as soon as it starts feeling like a chore you don’t want to do it. The last thing you want is a sport like triathlon to be feeling like a chore. You need to be having fun and enjoying it. How big a factor does that play, even today?
You’re pretty competitive and you’ve obviously got a lot better over the years but how important is getting out there and making sure you have fun in every session?
Ask yourself “am I having fun?”
WES THOMPSON: I think that’s everything. That’s why I stopped racing dirt bikes. There was a day there when I said to myself, “are you having fun”? And I honestly said to myself I’m not having fun anymore. I sold my bike, I’ve stood up a gig and I have not missed it. That was 8 years ago and I haven’t missed a thing. Surfing is still surf, not as often but I still find the Ironman training in particular fun, and I’ll do it until it isn’t.
BRAD BROWN: I think we all have stories like that. I used to play a lot of golf and I remember walking off a golf course after 9 holes and I was like I’m hating this. And I’ve never been back. Which is quite interesting because I used to play a lot of golf.
Let’s talk about your decision to do your first Ironman. That jump up is very mental as opposed to physical. Tell me about your first one.
Ironman training with no regrets
WES THOMPSON: My first Ironman was 2013, Ironman Australia at Port Macquarie. I had a good mate of mine, Matt. He still races annually and I’ve got friends that go down and race annually. I’d done a couple of halves up until then. Quite a few Olympics, couldn’t really tell how many but I’d run a marathon. Just pushing myself and I just had to check this Ironman thing out. And when I clicked that enter button on that website, I got a shot of adrenalin and it was like here we go and I haven’t looked back since then. Haven’t regretted that one bit.
BRAD BROWN: That first one, was it harder than you thought it was going to be, was it easier? What was your experience?
WES THOMPSON: Well, I kind of surprised myself and I surprised friends. I’d had an excellent day. At the time I was training with some mates and I gained a lot of information from them and a lot of ideas on pacing. I learned a lot without sort of being in their pocket. I learned a lot and I had a good day on my first Ironman. I did get a sub 10, so yes; it was quite a good day. I had a really good run. I think I jagged it, I think I got lucky.
Didn’t really have a clue on the nutrition side of things. It was just sort of, okay I’ve got to take a gel 15 minutes before and every 45 minutes thereafter and drink some electrolytes and whatever, and it got me through. I had a good race and surprised some people. I even surprised myself.
Remembering your first Ironman
BRAD BROWN: I’m sure. And finishing that first one, everyone remembers that first one. Has anything come as close to that? I’m guessing finishing on the big island must be pretty close if not better than finishing your first one.
WES THOMPSON: Well Brad, I’ve been on the big island twice. The first time I raced there in 2014. It was awful, it was really bad and I crossed that finish line. You should be in a euphoric state but it was probably the opposite. It was just a relief to get to the finish line and there were all these thoughts going through my head that I’m never doing this again. It was a tough day. Kona is just a whole different beast; I wouldn’t know where to start. Have you got a spare couple of days to find out how Kona is?
BRAD BROWN: What went wrong in that first one?
WES THOMPSON: Well I didn’t respect the conditions basically. I’d raced 2 Ironman previously. Both at Port Macquarie. When I’d raced at Port Macquarie it’s in autumn or fall and you’re rubbed up before the race. The weather’s quite warm but it is coming into winter and the conditions are very forgiving. So the conditions are cool, the sun is low in the sky. It’s not a typical Aussie hot, what you’d expect with a tough hot Aussie race. The conditions are quite cool. It might have been late teens or early 20’s maximum temperature. And you get through there and you think you have an idea of what needs to be done.
Respect the Kona conditions
You get to the big island and all that just goes out the window completely. It’s a whole new ball game.
BRAD BROWN: And obviously your second visit was a bit better. You learned some lessons on that first one. You didn’t hate it that much that you never went back.
WES THOMPSON: You soon snap out of that “I never want to do this again”. Probably everybody thought that when they cross the finish line or at the 30k mark of the marathon they think “why am I doing this? I never want to do this again”. But you get over that finish line, you get your finishers towel and your medal. You have a cool drink and you see your family and it’s like you can’t wait to sign up for your next race.
That was the case with the first time in Kona and ironically the first time we went there and to be honest with you Brad, I got there via a roll down which was good enough. I was good enough and I was close enough to get the roll down spot. We got to the big island and I was just pretty much in awe of the athletes there. You hear it, you see everyone there. They’re lean, they’re ripped and I was probably a little bit hard on myself.
A tearful finish humbles you
I did get that roll down spot and I kind of felt in the back of my mind that I probably wasn’t good enough to be there. When I finished that race I was kind of in tears because I had some tachycardia issues on the run. I’ve had a history of that and it’s becoming more and more common amongst the endurance fraternity.
I had some issues there on the run which had me buckled over on all fours on the Queen K just waiting for the heart rate to come down and it was really tough to do. To get to the finish line I was kind of in tears at the finish line. It was like this could be it; I might not be able to do this anymore.
But I was able to learn a lot and I changed my hydration which plays a huge key in how your body reacts in a hot environment like that. And the second time there I had a completely different outlook and a whole lot more respect for that course and I had a much better race. So, it was good.
BRAD BROWN: Sounds incredible. As far as, if I say the word Kona, what does it conjure up in your mind? What do you think of?
Unfinished business in Kona
WES THOMPSON: You almost get Goosebumps Brad when you hear Kona mentioned. It sounds cliché but your mind shifts to the lava fields and the heat and the humidity and the clichéd punch in the face when you get off the plane at the airport. And the raw beauty of the place. Getting onto the big island, I don’t know if it would have the same effect if the race wasn’t there. But you combine all the elements and all the facets of the race and the vibe in town. It just makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
BRAD BROWN: It’s something special. As far as unfinished business, I know the plan is not to go to Kona this year. You rolled your slot down. You did qualify but you didn’t take it up. Do you feel like you’ve got unfinished business on the big island or if you never make it back again you’re pretty satisfied with what you’ve managed to achieve?
WES THOMPSON: I am satisfied Brad. I was lucky enough to race it last year and my goal was to go under 10 hours. That’s all I wanted to do. I knew I’d gone under 10 hours before in my other races and I executed my race plan almost too perfectly because I got to the finish line with 43-seconds to spare. You have no idea how satisfying it was.
The satisfaction of your achievement
It’s quite funny actually looking at my finisher photos I barely even stepped over the line. I’m looking up at the timer to see if I’d done it. And yeah, fist-pump, I did. So it was very satisfying. If I never go back again I’m happy.
BRAD BROWN: 43-seconds over the length of an Ironman, that’s pretty tight.
WES THOMPSON: Yes, it’s too tight. I think I still would have been placed if I hadn’t made the 10 hours because I was really happy with the way I raced and it was a good day.
BRAD BROWN: As far as gear goes, talk me through your set up. What do you use across the board, swim, bike and run?
Being a tech-head has advantages
WES THOMPSON: I’m a bit of a tech-head. I think that’s one of the attractions to triathlon. There are some people that just don’t know how to maintain a bike. But like I said, I’m a tinkerer. I love keeping my bikes clean and well maintained and I like all the best gear. I like to keep my bikes optimized; I like to keep my position dialled. I ride a Giant Trinity SL0.
As far as the swim gear goes, that’s a little bit more ho-hum as far as a tech-head goes. It’s wet-suit, goggles and cap. There’s nothing exciting about that. I like the bike side and I like the technical side of the technology. I like seeing other people’s bikes. That’s the side of it that I enjoy.
Running is cool. Put your Garmin on and a pair of shoes and away you go. Fairly simple. All 3 go together quite well.
BRAD BROWN: Talk to me about that bike though from a components set up. What have you got on? Wheels wise, what do you love running?
Ride on the latest technology
WES THOMPSON: It’s a Giant Trinity; it runs at 9000DI2 of course, which is fairly par for the course these days. Race day in Kona, I’ll run the 90mm flow carbon clincher on the back and a 16mil front flow wheel. I would hesitate to use anything deeper than that on race day because it gets really windy out there and the last thing you want to be doing is fighting your bike and having to think too much about keeping the thing in a straight line. It works, it’s a good bike and I enjoy it. I think its fast enough. The grass isn’t greener; let me put it to you that way.
BRAD BROWN: Do you train to power? Have you got a power meter or what are you using?
WES THOMPSON: Yes, I train to power. I’ve used power for the last, I think 4 years. I use a Status Power Meter and I train probably 1 ride outside a week during the build, and I’ll do the rest indoors on the kicker. Your best bang for your buck there I believe, especially when you’re time crunching and you’ve got other sessions to do. I can’t recommend indoor training enough. You just cut out the junk and its all business mate.
Cutting out the junk miles
BRAD BROWN: One of the questions we get asked quite a bit is power numbers. What are your power numbers and what do you reckon it takes for a male, your age group, to qualify, what should you be pushing do you reckon? And what do you push?
WES THOMPSON: Well, that’s irrelevant really. It sort of comes down to watts per kilo. If you’re using power and you’re obviously riding to power, you know what your functional threshold power is. Your FTP, and you race virtually to a percentage of that which is around power zone 3, which is what I do.
You hear some guys ride to this wattage, 200, 220, and 240, whatever. I ride to a power zone and I keep it within a zone and I do take notice of heart rate during a race. But try and stay on power, try and keep it smooth and efficient.
Keep it clean, fast and aero for a good Ironman ride
You do see a lot of guys in races that are using way too much energy riding out of the saddle. Grinding too big a gear up hills when you really just need to stay seated, spin, keep it efficient and save those biggies for the run. It’s all about riding smart, riding aero I think you can’t put a high enough value on having an aero set up and riding aero because the watts you’re going to push out is important. Just keep everything clean, keep it fast, keep it aero and if you’re smart enough you’re going to have a good ride.
BRAD BROWN: As far as what’s left to still achieve in the sport, what are some of the goals? What do you still hope to achieve before you call it quits with triathlon?
WES THOMPSON: Well call it quits I don’t know if I will. While I’m still enjoying it I’m still going to keep racing.
BRAD BROWN: Race [inaudible]
Get smarter in the way you train
WES THOMPSON: Well, the big Aus. did not get on anywhere mate. I don’t think I’ve got the biomechanics, I don’t think my runs are going to get any quicker basically. I think because I’m getting a little bit older now and I’ve learned how to get out and run with intensity. I think those days are gone. I’ve got to be a little smarter with the way I train.
What’s left to achieve? I just want to be able to go to a race and execute the perfect race. Whatever that is. Who knows what that is? Has anyone ever done it? I don’t know. But that’s what will keep me coming back. I’ve been lucky enough to go to Hawaii twice. Some people go their whole careers without getting even close to going to Hawaii so I consider myself very lucky. As for a lot of people, they would quit.
If they hit Hawaii, that Kona slot once, then they never do another triathlon again. There are probably people that will take that. I think to myself that I’m thankful I’ve been there, been able to race there good and bad. But I think ultimately if I can continue the training and enjoy it and have fun and try to get the best out of myself on any race day. Be it a sprint or a club race or in Hawaii, there’s the attraction right there.
The secret to qualifying for the big island
I enjoy being fit. Who doesn’t like being able to do this? And pull their shirt off in front of the mirror and look fitter than the bloke beside you?
BRAD BROWN: The 20-year old bloke beside you.
WES THOMPSON: Exactly.
BRAD BROWN: As far as looking at qualifying, what do you reckon is the secret to qualifying for the big island?
WES THOMPSON: The secret to qualifying is the old C word, consistency. If you have any intentions of visiting the big island, you have to be consistent. You have to be patient, you have to be committed and you have to be organised. You have to be able to balance your professional life and work. And you have to be able to turn up every day to train consistently.
You have to be motivated and if you have those qualities and you approach it that way you’re going to give it a shake. So, you’ve just got to be driven.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Well Wes, it’s been great catching up. I look forward to talking about the individual disciplines but we’ll save that for another time. Thanks for your time today on The Kona Edge.
WES THOMPSON: Thanks Brad I appreciate you having me on. It’s been great. Thank you.
Brad Brown is a 40 something age grouper that dreams of one day qualifying for and racing on the big island (He may have to outlive everyone in his age group though).
Morbidly obese in 2009, Brad clocked in at 165kgs (363lbs) at his heaviest.
He's subsequently lost a third of his body weight on the way to a half Ironman pb of 5:06 and a full Ironman pb of 12:21.
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